If you look at IMDb’s character page for Alice, the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you’ll find at least 50 different interpretations of the role. That’s because filmmakers and storytellers keep finding different ways to tell an Alice tale, be she a mild-mannered youth (Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland), armor-clad heroine (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), or something altogether more subversive (Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls).
It’s not clear, however, what the BBC and Warner Home Video add to the conversation with its recent featureless releases of two decades-old television miniseries. The BBC reverses Carroll’s story order, starting with Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1973, then following up with Alice in Wonderland in 1986. Other than the chronology, everything about these two teleplays is completely conventional and handled better in other adaptations.
Of the two, Alice Through the Looking Glass is more successful. (And shorter, clocking in at a little over an hour, though you feel every second.) The Alice in this case is at least age-appropriate, being played by Sarah Sutton as a 12-year-old. (Sutton went on to become a companion on Doctor Who, so the existence of the DVD might best be explained as a way to gouge fans of the good Doctor.) Besides Sutton, a small number of the other actors seem to embody the requisite goofiness to have come from Carroll’s world (Judy Parfitt as the Red Queen and Geoffrey Bayldon as the White Knight chief among them).
Still, Alice Through the Looking Glass is hardly a joy to watch. The scenes mostly take place with the actors standing in front of painted, storybook backgrounds, a halo of green-screen surrounding them. In each scene, Alice comes upon another character, they stand almost stock-still and have some kind of loopy conversation, a poem is recited (reenacted by different actors in front of a different storybook background), and Alice is on her way again. It’s hardly cinematic and barely even dramatic. It’s one step beyond having someone read the book aloud at the local library.
With all of its limitations, somehow Alice in Wonderland manages to be worse. The cheap sets and poor effects are still present despite the 13 year gap. Kate Dorning, who’s taken over the role of Alice, seems much too old for the part—with someone as old as she is demonstrating a basic lack of understand about how the world works, she comes across as just plain simple (and with a squeakily high voice). Sometimes she argues with herself aloud, other times her inner monologue is presented as a voiceover, and it’s impossible to tell why one is used over the other. Spending time with her is a chore.
You’d think it wouldn’t be so bad, since there’s a ton of other colorful characters populating the world under the rabbit hole. Unfortunately, most of them are animals, and the BBC production has chosen to portray them using actors in masks. The faces don’t move, the eyes are hollow, and the masks even muffle the voices of the actors, dampening any kind of possible performance. Only the Mad Hatter (Pip Donaghy) gets a reprieve. His face is his own, and with full use of it he’s able to actually embody a character among a bunch of fussy, interchangeable humanoid animals. (Sure, there are other un-masked actors, but only Donaghy makes an impression.)
If that wasn’t bad enough, Alice in Wonderland also sees the addition of tuneless songs. It’s through these songs that the teleplay stretches into two long hours—which you have the option of watching all the way through as a feature film, or broken up into four half-hour episodes. Even if you do watch all at once, there is wrap-around framing material that cuts in every once in a while.
With the low-budget production values and bad special effects, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland combine the worst of public-access television with the worst of community theater. Take, for instance, the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland. There’s a crowd of extras, but the stage is so small there isn’t room for any running. Instead, the characters just shuffle about, remarking at how chaotic it all seems. It’s so ineffective, it can’t even be appreciated as camp.
In that way, the two teleplays are true to the antic nature of the Carroll books without really capturing the true spirit of their playfulness. I can see these releases as some kind of curio for nostalgic fans who remember the productions from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Otherwise, I’m not sure how anyone else can find anything enjoyable about them. Instead, it’d be better to just read the books.